Cyprus: 40 years ago I was liberated

Ugur Karagozlu recalls fearful times on the troubled island of Cyprus – when Turkish forces intervened.


Kyrenia Harbour and the Kyrenia Mountains

I was ‘liberated’ exactly forty years ago last Saturday.

On 14th July 1974 we had set out from our home in Limassol to visit my maternal grandparents in Lefke. We never made it back home.

On July 15th I was visiting a friend in Lefke when the news was broadcast on Bayrak radıo that there had been a coup and President Makarios had been deposed. The news stressed that this was an internal matter for Greek Cypriots and that we, the Turkish Cypriots, had nothing to worry about. But I will never forget the reaction of the ladies of the neighbourhood. “Heaven have mercy,” cried one of them, “they will turn against us now.”

I was twelve at the time. I was petrified and ran back to my grandparents home. I can’t remember exactly but it was either on that day or the following day that my father decided to pack up and take us back home to Limassol. So we set out , me with a very heavy heart, thinking how on earth we could leave those two elderly people to their own devices at a time like that. We got out of Lefke, which was a Turkish town and approached a Greek Cypriot military checkpoint. When my father explained to the Greek Cypriot soldier on duty his ‘brilliant’ plan, the reply that he got was “Are you mad? They will kill you on the roads. Go back to Lefke where you will be safe.”

So we did.

On 20 July, when I woke up very early in the morning, the members of our extended family were all gathered in the house and shedding tears of joy as they listened to our leader Rauf Denktaş and Turkish PM Bülent Ecevit on the radio.

The hour of our salvation had arrived, they said. The Turkish army was carrying out a ‘peace operation’ and that Turkish forces were landing everywhere on the island. We, the children, believed that this was the case and ran up to a top of a hill overlooking Morphou Bay expecting the Turkish ships to arrive any moment. No Turkish ships arrived. What did arrive was a barrage of mortar shells that started raining on Lefke and which went on without a hitch for two days and by the end of the second day Lefke had surrendered to the Greek Cypriot forces.

The civilians were told to gather at two points and when the Greek forces eventually drove into the town there was mayhem. We all expected to be killed and much worse. Nothing of that sort happened but we lived with the fear. I am not going to go on about what life was like between July 22nd and August 16th when the Turkish forces arrived. Suffice to say that we were terrified. Every time a Greek Cypriot jeep was spotted at the bottom of our road taking away the males of every household we started to cry and hugged my father who, also in tears, took off his ring and watch and wallet expecting that he too would be taken away to a certain death. Luckily they never knocked on our door and none of those who were taken away came to any harm. They were taken to prison camps and were all eventually released.

On August 16 a group of UN soldiers came to our house with a huge smile on their faces to say: “Congratulations, you are free. All the Greeks have left and the Turkish army is about to enter the town.”

My grandmother’s immediate reaction was to hang two Turkish flags in front of her house. Thinking back what strikes me the most about this was the fact that these people who had been kicked out of their ancestral home by their Greek Cypriot neighbours in 1963 and were forced to live as refugees – refugees in the proper sense of the word; destitute and not like the Turkish Cypriot refugees of 1974 who had the luxury of moving into Greek Cypriot-owned homes in the North – homes that they could only dream about hitherto. My grandparents had at first rented a house in Lefke in 1963 and I guess when their money had run out they were forced to move into a miner’s tenement. A two room and kitchen affair with no bathroom and an outdoor toilet that was a hole in the ground jobbie. There were two beds, a table, a couple of chairs and an old radio. That was all they had but so it transpired they also had Turkish flags. And they were not alone.

The whole town was immediately awash with Turkish flags. Until, that is, there was a sudden gunfire. The flags disappeared immediately until the UN soldiers came back to explain that we had nothing to worry about that two Greek Cypriot soldiers who had fallen asleep panicked when they woke up and saw that the town was covered in Turkish flags, shot in the air and fled.

When the word got around the town was bedecked with Turkish flags anew and everyone rushed down to the main street waiting for the Turkish army to enter and when they did atop ancient tanks, everyone including the bewildered looking Turkish soldiers were sobbing. Everyone was shouting “We have been saved.”

That is how things looked 40 years ago last Saturday.